DETROIT — On another team, he might be an ace.
For the Detroit Tigers, Anibal Sanchez is the No. 3 starter — at least in this AL division series against Oakland.
Sanchez takes the mound today for Game 3 between the Tigers and Athletics after the teams split a pair of pulsating one-run games in Oakland. The A's evened the series Saturday night despite a brilliant performance by Detroit right-hander Justin Verlander, and now the Tigers will call on Sanchez, another standout from what's become an exceptional starting rotation.
"We just came back from playing two playoff games, and we're pitching a guy that led the league in earned run average," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "That's pretty good."
Sanchez's 2.57 ERA this season indeed paced the American League, and he's been exactly what Detroit hoped for when the Tigers acquired him from the Miami Marlins in the middle of last season. Sanchez, Verlander, and right-hander Max Scherzer have been so good over the last couple years, it wasn't clear how Leyland would order them for this series.
"This year, I just tried to keep to the level of those guys," Sanchez said. "For me, I've got my job, and every five days, I try at that point, to throw a really good game."
Scherzer won Game 1 against Oakland, and Verlander held the A's scoreless for seven innings in Game 2. Oakland finally scored in the ninth off the Detroit bullpen to win 1-0, but now the Tigers can send Sanchez out today. Doug Fister will take the mound in Game 4 after going 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA during the regular season.
"They're lucky enough to have three guys — and really Fister at times can be just as tough as any of them," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "If you put any of those four guys on a different team ... you're looking at top-of-the-rotation guys."
The A's can run four solid starters out to the mound too — even if Oakland's pitchers aren't as well known. Sonny Gray certainly made an impression in his postseason debut Saturday, when he went toe to toe with Verlander. Oakland right-hander Jarrod Parker will pitch Game 3, and he says there's no extra pressure to match scoreless frames with the Tigers.
"That's the goal every time out," Parker said. "I'm not going to go out and press and force and not be who I am."
Detroit's terrific rotation began coming together last year, when Scherzer shook off a poor start to become one of the AL's best pitchers. The Tigers also traded for Sanchez, who looked like a solid, middle-of-the-rotation right-hander.
"We knew we were getting a guy that was going to keep you in the game, but he's definitely been much better than I think anybody thought, as far as his consistency," Detroit catcher Alex Avila said.
In last year's postseason, Detroit's pitchers really began to shine. The Tigers beat Oakland in five games in the division series before sweeping the New York Yankees in the AL championship series, with the rotation posting a 1.02 ERA through those two rounds.
In the World Series, Detroit's own bats went silent, and the Tigers were swept in four straight by San Francisco. That was a reminder that if Detroit doesn't hit, its outstanding pitching can be overcome.
And that's why this series is tied at 1. The Tigers put up three runs in the first inning of the series but haven't scored since. They held on to win the opener 3-2 before wasting a marvelous, 11-strikeout effort by Verlander in Game 2.
Leyland plans to put Jhonny Peralta in the lineup today in an effort to boost the offense. Peralta was the Tigers' shortstop before he was suspended 50 games in early August as part of baseball's investigation of the Biogenesis of America anti-aging clinic, which was accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs. Detroit now has Jose Iglesias at shortstop, but Peralta came back for the final three games of the regular season as an outfielder.
This will be his first home game since the suspension.
"We've got to try to score some runs, obviously," Leyland said.
It's been a tense, riveting start to this series — with a lot less scoring than the four-game set these teams played in Detroit in late August. The A's scored 34 runs in that series and won three of four.
"Against these guys, you wouldn't have expected that," Melvin said. "But we just had a lot of momentum once we scored a bunch of runs the first game. We were getting pitch counts up, getting into the bullpen — a little different dynamic than what we're looking at right now."
OAKLAND — Justin Verlander returned to the clubhouse to refocus when Detroit was batting, and watched Sonny Gray closely. It didn't take Verlander long to realize that one run might be all anybody managed — and that it could be a tough night for his Tigers.
Against a rookie making only his 11th major league start, no less.
Verlander's masterful postseason outing was matched by Gray in Oakland's 1-0 victory Saturday night, which sent the AL division series to Detroit tied at one game apiece.
The two pitchers stayed even with every 1-2-3 inning they tossed, and every jam they somehow escaped.
"I thought it was going to be close, and I thought one run might do it," Verlander said. "That's just from watching him."
Stephen Vogt stroked a bases-loaded single in the ninth inning for his first career game-ending hit after Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith started the rally with back-to-back singles against loser Al Alburquerque.
Josh Reddick was intentionally walked before Rick Porcello entered to face Vogt. He lined a clean single past drawn-in shortstop Jose Iglesias and into left-center.
The AL West champion A's had eight walk-off wins during the regular season, then did it again at the perfect time on baseball's October stage.
Vogt's clutch hit came after he lost a 10-pitch battle with Verlander in the seventh for his third strikeout of the night.
"Vogt, the last at-bat he had, a 10-pitch count with me, and I think that put the nail in the coffin," Verlander said of finishing his outing.
It was the first game in postseason history in which both starters had nine strikeouts and no runs allowed.
Grant Balfour pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for the win, but it was Gray and Vogt who took celebratory whipped cream pies to the face.
"I knew there was going to be a lot of adrenaline, and how I was able to harness that adrenaline was going to be a big factor in the game," Gray said. "It was awesome because I was still able to locate my pitches without being too shaky."
Alburquerque struck out two in the eighth. He is still remembered for kissing the ball while recording an out in the ninth inning of a Game 2 win last October.
The A's got him this time.
Gray hung tough with a masterful Verlander in a thrilling pitchers' duel between the rookie making his 11th career start and the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. Each calmly worked out of tough jams, wore their emotions on their sleeves — with fist pumps and cheers — and set down the heart of the other's batting order.
Gray struck out nine in eight dazzling innings, allowing four hits. Verlander, who beat the A's twice in the ALDS last fall, struck out 11 to give him 33 Ks in his past three postseason outings against Oakland.
The right-hander ran his postseason scoreless streak against the A's to 22 innings, unfazed by a rowdy sellout crowd of 48,292 on its feet and swirling yellow towels all night.
Or, by Gray's display.
At the start of Verlander's remarkable 2011 season, Gray was finishing up at Vanderbilt before becoming the 18th overall draft pick.